Side Dishes

Time for Bruschetta

Today is the last full day of summer, and one of its paradoxes is that though the days are getting shorter and cooler, tomatoes are coming into their prime, making it the perfect time to make gazpacho, caprese salad, or bruschetta.

Recently, Santa Maria took note of the changing of the seasons by picking up some ripe tomatoes, a head of basil, and a loaf of fresh bread. She took ten minutes to mix it up bruschetta, and we ate it with a glass of wine. It was a Saturday—which to the naïve would seem to be a time of rest but parents of young children know better—and because she had taken the time to prepare this simple and delicious appetizer, we all enjoyed a moment of peace.

The moment was sandwiched between picking up the house after a day of play and getting ready to make dinner, which in a way made it all the more sweeter. I suggest that you do something similar, on this first weekend of fall. Go, make yourself a moment of delicious food and appreciate the changing of the seasons.

Santa Maria learned to make this from her Italian-born college roommate (and I think she first ate it at her house in Tuscany), and it has one slight variation on most bruschetta recipes that I have seen. She does not chop the garlic and mix it with the tomato and basil. Instead, she rubs a clove over a toasted piece of bread, and the raw garlic gives each bite of bruschetta a sharp kick.

Bruschetta the Santa Maria Way

  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • Fresh basil leaves, washed and torn into little bits.
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • slices of fresh bread, toasted

In a bowl, mix the chopped tomatoes with the basil, some oil, and a bit of salt.

Rub the toasted pieces of bread on one side with the raw garlic. The garlic clove will start to come apart, and that is fine. 

Top the garlic-rubbed bread with the tomato-basil mixture and eat right away. These are best made a few at a time and enjoyed in the moment. If they sit around, they are liable to get soggy.

Saving Food: A Roasted Red Pepper Recipe


A big part of cooking for one’s family is managing all the food in the house. When I was a teenager, my mother used to keep gallon jugs of milk in the fridge, and while I don’t think we drank from them straight out of the container, we certainly raced through them. I don’t know how many times she must have had to shop each week, but it had to be more than a few times.

My problem right now is finding the balance between buying too little and buying too much. I currently have four ears of corn that I cooked on Friday, and that neither Santa Maria nor any of the kids wanted. I might have to write off those ears, but I hate to see things go to waste.

The other night I was going through the fridge to make my quinoa salad, and I realized that I had an extra red bell pepper that wasn’t going to last much longer. I knew I wouldn't be using it anytime soon, so I roasted it, sliced it, and put it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It will now be good for another few days, if not weeks.

Roasting a pepper is easy. Here's how to do it:

Just rinse it and put it on a gas burner, and turn on the flame. Using tongs, rotate or otherwise move the pepper around so every side of it becomes charred all over.

When it is as black as you can get it, put it in a bowl and cover the top tightly with plastic wrap. Leave it for about fifteen minutes, or longer, and after the pepper cools its skin will slide right off. Knock and rinse (see comment from Matt, below) off the seeds and any bits of charred skin, then slice it and put in a container with enough olive oil and vinegar to cover. I added a bit of oregano, and I’m looking forward to having them on a sandwich or crackers sometime in the near future.

What are some of the things you do to preserve any extra food you have on hand?  Anyone have any ideas about what I can do with those ears of corn?

Damn-the-Tornadoes Corn-Tomato-Feta Salad

When I was in Alaska recently, we had some nasty weather, which isn't surprising given we were in a rainforest, but nothing compares to what we just had in New York City, where two tornadoes swept through the outerboroughs. Up North, there were clouds and showers every day, but the dramatic setting and the great company made up for it. I was joined by a bunch of really entertaining food bloggers—Cannelle et Vanille, Family Fresh Cooking, A Less Processed Life, Sippity Sup, La Tartine Gourmande, and The Wicked Noodle—who have already (or will soon, I suspect) start telling their versions of the trip, and I encourage you to check out their postings.

I’ll be telling my Alaskan tales soon enough, but what I want talk about today is something that the two chefs on the trip, Dan Enos, of The Oceanaire Seafood Room, in Boston, and Patrick Hoogerhyde, of The Bridge, in Anchorage, kept mentioning. And that is “Flavor Profiles.” They kept saying that each fish or mollusk had its own flavor profile, and that was what mattered most.

Restaurateurs, of course have their own set of concerns, such as how to satisfy each “guest,” as they kept calling their customers. Home cooks who work full-time have another set of concerns, such as how to remain employed and find the time to shop, or how to use up that feta you happened to have bought too much of and that is at risk of going to seed in the back of the fridge. Home-cooking working parents have yet another set of concerns, such as how to do all the above and not end up with TMJ, an ulcer, or divorce.

I kept the idea of balancing flavor profiles in mind on Saturday morning when I was rushing to make lunch for a quixotic trip to the beach. We thought we could enjoy one last summer day at the shore, but it ended up raining on us, which reminded me of my trip to Alaska (and those two twisters made me think of Kansas).

I made simple sandwiches for Nina and Pinta, but I wanted something savory and satisfying for myself and Santa Maria. I had a bit of corn on the cob left over from the night before, and I had that aforementioned feta. Also, I knew I had an extra tomato, so I was three-quarters of the way to a decent salad. I added some olives to give the salad a bit of salt, and I dressed it with a cider vinegar to give it a bit of sweet acid. To give it a bit of a bite, I tossed in dried oregano and thyme, but if I had any fresh herbs on hand I would have used those instead. Finally, I finished it with olive oil, because that is good on everything.

We ate the salad in the car after giving up on the rainy beach. The dressing had collected in the bottom of the container, and once the salad was gone, we sopped it all up with ends of fresh bread. Like Alaska, it didn’t matter that it had rained—the food was so good.

Quick Damn-the-Tornadoes Summer Feta Tomato Salad 

  • 1 ripe tomato, chopped
  • An ear or two of cooked corn, kernels sliced off the cob
  • Feta to taste, chopped
  • ¼ to ½ onion, diced
  • A handful of black olives, cut into quarters.
  • Dried oregano and thyme, to taste (or other fresh herbs if available)
  • Cider vinegar and olive oil, to taste.

Combine the ingredients in a bowl, and serve with fresh bread.


How to Cook for a Big Group

There are many different ways to cook for a big group (and I’ll get to my favorite way in a moment) but I want to warn you off the most obvious way.  Don’t fall into the trap of just trying to double or triple a recipe. It won’t work well. Ingredients, like people, behave differently when they are in crowds. Pieces of meat or vegetables that that were supposed to be sautéed end up becoming steamed if the pan gets to crowded. Things don’t brown the way they were supposed to. Three times the amount of one spice may not taste right compared to three times the amount of another.

There’s an easy way to avoid this predicament, and the nice thing about the solution is that it will make you look better as a chef, and it will make your guests much more satisfied with their meal—just make a large number of small dishes. And by small, I must mean normal sized. If a given recipe serves four to six people, pair it with one or two other main courses that do the same, and all of a sudden the cooking becomes more manageable, and the meal becomes more elaborate. You suddenly have a six course meal. It’s a kind of culinary alchemy.

I had this in the back of my mind the other weekend that I cooked for my sister and her brood, after coming back from the shore. I was so excited to see everybody that I accidentally invited them all to my mother’s house before consulting my mother. She had been planning on getting a bit of fish for five, and all of a sudden it was dinner for nine.

I was in the grocery store with my mother when I sprung this on her. She was a bit nonplussed, and I couldn’t blame her. So I started tossing about ideas for side dishes, to stretch the fish. I was already planning on making the Feta, Tomato, and Parsley Salad, so I picked up some tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, to make a couple of plates of Caprese Salad. My sister had agreed to bring a green salad, so we just needed one more dish. I thought about my Fly Sky High Kale Salad, but decided the Kale in Westchester in the summer is not worth the effort.

At that point, my mother mentioned that she had some green-market zucchini that she’d sautéed up and stuck in the freezer before going on vacation. She wondered if I could use it (I think she finally came around to the idea of a big gathering when she realized she could clean out part of her freezer). She mentioned ratatouille, but the eggplant looked worse than the kale. She was determined to get rid of that zucchini, though, so I offered to make a faux-ratatouille. I bought a link of spicy Italian sausage, to substitute for the eggplant. It worked well, and everyone was happy and well fed. I don’t really have a recipe for you, but I can tell you want I did.

In a large frying pan, I sautéed some slices of red onion and some sweet onion that had been hanging around the house. After they were soft and brown, I took them out of the pan. I broke up the sausage and browned it in the pan. Then I added a bit of chopped garlic, and tossed in the mostly defrosted zucchini (which my mother had sautéed before freezing; if I was starting with fresh zucchini, I would have cubed them and browned them right after doing the onions, taking care not to crowd the pan). Once the zucchini were hot and sizzling, I tossed the onions back in. I chopped some extra tomatoes, and tossed those in, too. After they broke down and the water from the zucchini had simmered off, I was done.  

Delicious Iron-Rich Summer Salad?

For various reasons (possibly due to an early exposure to Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps”), I’ve become interested in the iron content of our meals. Last night Santa Maria and I whipped up healthy, last-minute summer salad that was so delicious I was beside myself as I ate it.

We mixed together raw spinach, avocado, and tomatoes, and I topped mine with slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cheese and the avocado combined to make some kind of mystical flavor in my mouth. I relished every bite, and—given the spinach and avocado—we felt confident that the meal was rich in iron.

But then I started looking around the Internet, and learned that though spinach is rich in iron, much of it cannot be absorbed by the body. The problem is caused by something called oxalic acid, which is also found in spinach. According to Jill Fullerton-Smith’s “The Truth about Food,” oxalic acid combines with the iron, and renders it unavailable.

Apparently, though if you take Vitamin C with spinach, you can combat this effect. Santa Maria had the foresight to dress the salad with limejuice, so maybe we got more iron than we thought. I wonder if anyone can explain how much Vitamin C is needed to facilitate the absorption of iron?

Baby Spinach Summer Salad

  • 1/2 lb baby spinach, washed and dried
  • 1/2 large ripe avocado, peeled and cubed
  • 1 ripe tomato, cut into wedges
  • 1/2 lime, juiced
  • Olive Oil, to taste
  • Slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, to taste

Combine the greens and avocado and dress with the lime and olive oil. Salt and Pepper to taste.

Arrange the wedges of tomato around the edge of two plates.

Put the dressed greens in the center of the plate, and top with the slices of cheese.

More on Grits and a Shrimp Grits Recipe

Gumbo grits 070
I loved the grits they served at the High Hampton Inn, and I ate them almost every day for breakfast. If I had things my way, I would have eaten them three times a day. I thought they tasted just like polenta, and when I mentioned this to the executive chef, he chuckled at me and said, “But no, they’re grits.” I asked what the difference was, and he said grits were made with hominy. When I asked him about the difference between hominy and regular cornmeal, he chuckled some more and said he had no idea.

According to “The New Food Lover’s Companion,” a nifty dictionary of food items edited by Sharon Tyler Herbst, the term grits “actually refers to any coarsely ground grain such as corn, oats, or rice.” The book points out that it is “commonly used to mean “Hominy” grits.

Hominy, according Herbst, is “one of the first food gifts the American Indians gave to the colonists.” It is “dried white or yellow corn kernels from which the hull and germ have been removed. This process is done either mechanically or chemically by soaking the corn in slaked lime or lye.”

At the High Hampton Inn, they used Adluh Stone Ground Yellow Grits, and I’ve written to them to see what they say about grits. I'll let you know what I learn. In the meantime, my post on Friday about the Southern staple drew a nice reply from a friend of mine in Pennsylvania, Anne Corr. An instructor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State, she also runs Cook Like a Chef, a summer cooking camp for kids, and writes for The Centre Daily Times, her local paper.

Her latest article is all about Louisiana cooking, and as it turns out, if she was cooking I could have eaten grits for lunch and dinner too. Here’s her recipe for one of her favorite dishes, shrimp grits.

Shrimp Grits

  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup stone-ground grits
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 pound 25-30 count shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 cup minced scallions (these are called “shallots” in Baton Rouge)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced 4 tablespoons minced parsley
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon Cajun or Creole spice blend, optional Hot sauce to taste


Place water and grits in a 2 quart saucepan and slowly bring it up to a boil, whisking occasionally until it gets thick, and then vigorously while it boils for a minute. Remove heat and season with salt and pepper to taste and add the butter. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a sauté pan and add the shrimp when hot. Stir and cook until just pink and firm to the touch. Add the scallions, garlic, parsley and lemon juice and give it a stir. Hit it with some Cajun spice-bam!-if you like. Pour the grits into a large shallow bowl and top with the shrimp. Serve with hot sauce on the side.

Makes 4 servings.

A Broken Oven, An Everlasting Meal, and Some Killer French Fries

I recently finished an amazing book called “An Everlasting Meal,” by Tamar Adler. Modeled on M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf, “ it lives up to its subtitle, “Cooking with Economy and Grace.” Adler is a former magazine editor (she used to work at Harper’s) who went on to cook for Gabrielle Hamilton, at Prune, open her own restaurant in Georgia, and also then work for Alice Waters. She knows what she’s doing in the kitchen.

Her book is very captivating and inspiring, because she takes her rich professional background and gears her writing towards regular home cooks. She starts with completely wacky suggestions about boiling meats and cooking the bejesus out vegetables, and salting everything in sight high heaven, but her writing is so clear, so—for lack of a better description—perfectly seasoned, that it’s impossible not to start thinking that she’s right about everything.

Reading her book is like going on a trip to a foreign land, not in that it is like a travelogue (though she’s been all over the world), but in that spending time with its pages is like spending time overseas. There are very different customs in the mental and emotional place where she lives, and I’m not just talking about the boiled meats. The world in which she seems to inhabit is full of delicious things, from a simple egg to a salad of parsely, to homemade pickles and head-to-tail eating. Basically, she makes you feel like everything can taste great, if you just know how to look at things.

I have the feeling I’ll have more to say about Adler and her book soon—it has changed my perspective on cooking, and if I can just get out of my own way, I, too, can live in the beautiful place where there’s always sliced radish available for an impromptu guest.

In the meantime, I’ll share the very important message I got from the book. I don’t know if this is what she meant to say, but I heard it telling me, “don’t give up; keep going.” At least those are the thoughts that sprung into my head on Friday evening when my oven broke.

We were having an old friend of Santa Maria’s who was visiting from Dublin over for dinner—a simple dinner with the kids of hot dogs, homemade hamburgers, a green salad, and my oven-roasted French fries. I prepped everything in the morning before going to work. I washed the lettuce, I made the hamburgers, I sliced the potatoes, and I left things for Santa Maria to put together that evening. I knew I’d be coming home from work just in time to eat, but not in time to do any cooking.

When I arrived home, the fries were in the oven, but the oven was only at 265 degrees. They looked sad and pale, and eventually, we had to give up on them. The oven wouldn’t heat. I’m not sure what’s wrong with it, but I’m going to have to pay to find out.  That night, we ate what was ready, which was fine, if a bit Atkins-y: Hamburgers, salad, hot dogs, buns, and some extra bread for the kids instead of the French Fries.

Later, when I was cleaning up and doing the dishes, I took those cold and depressive potatoes out of the oven. My first thought was to throw them out, but I thought it would be wrong to waste so much food, and I heard the voice of Alder’s “An Everlasting Meal” whispering in my ear. She wouldn’t throw them out. She poaches eggs in olive oil, and I thought, what the hell, I could cook these dead-on-arrival fries in some olive oil and see what might happen.

I poured a bunch of oil into a large frying pan, and I dumped the potatoes in. I cooked them on a medium to low heat with the cover on while I did the dishes. Every so often, I lifted the cover and moved them around with a spatula. I noticed a curious thing—they were turning golden brown and getting crispy. By the time the kids were in bed and the dishes done, I had a batch of crispy, oily, salty fries, that you would pay good money for on the streets of Dublin at two A. M. We ate them with relish, and I think Adler would have been proud.

Best Salad Dressing Ever

To say that married life is complicated is an understatement (there used to be a haggard-looking woman in my old neighborhood who would walk around smoking a cigarette, wearing a dirty tee shirt that said in garish red letters “Marriage: The Only War in Which You Sleep with the Enemy”), and after all these years of being hitched to Santa Maria, I thought I knew all the ways in which we got a long and all the ways we didn’t.

Well, I’ve been reading Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence” and it has been an eye opener, especially its chapter on marital relations. Seeing how this is a food blog, all I’ll say is that if you haven’t read the book, you will be well served by picking up a copy. And I mean that. Here, I’ll just concentrate on what I’ve put into practice around the kitchen.

The other night, I came home and Santa Maria was worn out by the day. I had missed dinner with the kids and after they were in bed, she had to do some work for a big project she’s working on. I know she’s been craving vegetables, and I was in the mood for a salad that night. So, I washed some spinach, tossed in some cherry tomatoes, and sliced a tiny bit of red onion. I shared it with her, and there it was: marital bliss on a plate.

Last night, when we were having a Saturday seafood feast, Santa Maria returned the favor. I had cooked flounder, fried rice, and green beans, and that would have been just fine. But she stepped into the kitchen and combined three simple ingredients into a mouthwatering—and heartwarming—salad. She took the green beans, sliced cherry tomatoes in half, and added a bit of red onion. And, she dressed it with a remarkable balsamic vinaigrette that, like marriage itself, was so good that it turned something simple into something beyond great.

How to be Nice Dressing

  • 4-5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1½ tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • ½ clove fresh garlic, diced
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • salt and pepper to taste

Mix the ingredients together in a bowl. Serve over greens of your choice. Try green beans, cherry tomatoes, and diced red onion, for example. 

Make Ahead Guide: How to Make French Fries

When my sister came over for dinner the two weeks ago, she said she felt like she had fallen into a rut, and that she wasn’t cooking as many things as she used to cook.

She said an old favorite of hers was a mushroom risotto, and that she was recently shocked to realize that she’d never made it for her son, who is eleven. “That means I haven’t made it in more than a decade,” she said. “How did that happen?”

“You had a son,” I said. “That’s how it happened.”

It’s no surprise, of course, that having kids changes your life. Just as one can never enter the same river twice, becoming a parent can wash away some of the things that came before. Just make sure, though, that cooking is not one of them. And one of the best ways to keep cooking as a part of your life is to learn to plan ahead.

It takes work, but it is worth it. On the same visit she said she was impressed that I had cooked black beans, Bolognese, and chicken stock one afternoon. What I didn’t tell her is that I gave up time in the park with my girls that day. That was a price I was willing to pay.

Sometimes, the cost of a good meal isn’t so high. The evening that my sister came over, we had French fries, hot dogs, and blue-cheese hamburgers. Santa Maria put the dinner together before I came home from work. She was able to do that because I had done most of the prep work in the morning. A good working couple can unite to get good food on the table almost every night, so long as one person takes the lead and does the planning. Here’s my do-it-ahead planning tip of the day for making French fries:

  • Cut up the potatoes ahead of time (as in before you go to work)
  • Then store them for the day submersed in water, covered, in the refrigerator. This will keep them from turning brown.
  • They'll be ready to cook when you get home.

I’ve also heard that doing this helps keep them moist, though I don’t know if it’s true. All I know is that the night my sister came over, we had the potatoes ready in no time. For the complete story on making oven-baked French Fries, click here.

Polenta! Polenta! Polenta!

I have a new love in the kitchen, and its name is polenta. For years, I’ve seen it on restaurant menus and heard it talked about from everyone from foodies to my own mother (who, when she would taste it on a plate while eating out, would sometimes get mixed up and say, “these mashed potatoes aren’t real”), but I’ve never tried to make it at home, until recently.

Polenta was always too confusing—like my mother, I wasn’t even sure I could identify a properly cooked batch—and scary to make. Don’t you have to stir it constantly? And Bill Buford, one of my favorite authors, writes in his book “Heat” that at Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo there’s a version that take three-hours to make. Who has time for that?

But Buford lets loose a little secret—you don’t have to stir it all the time it cooks. And this was confirmed by an Epicurious recipe I came across from none other than Marcella Hazan, the authority on home-cooked Italian food. Her version is no-stir, too. She says that by covering it, there’s condensation in the pan and it results in a creamy version. I went to make her recipe the other night, delighted that such a reliable authority was suggesting it was okay to skip some key steps, but I failed to read her recipe through before I got started. According to her, it takes thirty-five minutes, covered, on a low heat.

I went ahead with it that night anyway, because I was dying for a batch. I cooked it on a higher heat and stirred it every so often. There’s something about the rich cornmeal taste and the creamy sensation on the tongue is only topped by the enticing aroma. I know I’m going heavy on the adjectives here, but I’ve just finished a batch and had a glass-and-a-half of wine, so sue me.

I first made a batch for Valentine’s Day, and I carefully followed a recipe I found in “D’Artagnan’s Glorious Game Cookbook.” It called for two-and-a-half cups of milk, half a cup of cornmeal, ¼ cup of Parmesan, 2 tablespoons of butter, and a whole lot of stirring. That was fine for a Valentine’s Day dinner (what is romance with about a bit of work) but Hazan’s no-stir recipe held the most hope for me.

She makes hers with water, but that didn’t sound very appealing. I ended up mixing half milk (I was short of it that week) and half water. This evening, I experimented some more, and I’m happy to report that if you have the time, the low heat “no-stir” covered way works, as does the higher heat, stir-pretty-often way, too. I put a batch on to cook on a super low heat just before starting to read to my girls before their bedtime. In between books I jumped up to stir the pot to keep the polenta from sticking. And soon enough the polenta was done. To put it in other words, don’t be afraid of polenta—show it a little love, and it will love you back.

Weeknight Polenta


  • 2 cups of milk (or half milk, half water, or any combination of the two)
  • ½ cup high-quality cornmeal
  • 1 Tablespoon butter, or more, to taste
  • ½ cup finely grated Parmesean, or more to taste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste.

Bring the liquid to a boil in a small pot that you can cover.

Whisk in the polenta and stir vigorously to remove all lumps.

Stir for a minute or two more, then cover and turn down to a very low heat.

Let cook for about a half hour or more, stirring every ten minutes or so to keep it from sticking on the bottom.

Stir in the butter and the cheese.

Add the salt and pepper and serve.

(Image courtesy of The Kitchn)